A Plea from the Azalea Belt


The brave garden writer Adrian Higgins does garden designers a big favor in today's WaPo – by dumping on the overused and misused azaleas now screaming from foundations all over the region.  And while designers have to politely tiptoe around the subject, Higgins goes right for the jugular, before moving on to his suggested alternatives:

April brings tens of thousands of azaleas stampeding through the suburban Serengeti like a herd of wildebeest.  Pink wildebeest.  Cherry red wildebeest.  Fuchsia wildebeest.

Florally, it's a binge banquet for three weeks followed by a diet of gruelish greenery the rest of the year.

The "garden" above is not far from me, and a perfect example of everything Higgins complains about – plus really bad pruning.


  1. Dear lord, who would do that to a poor unsuspecting azalea?! I hate seeing them in my neck of the woods (also most rhodies) because they tend to be planted somewhere with no protection from the elements and they just fry in the summer here. But at least they don’t hedge them like those poor things!

  2. Oh ! I love azaleas. Not pruned into balls, squares, spires, or wedges, mind you. Rhodies, too. Though I’m not a fan of typical foundation plantings, at any rate, I like them in woodland settings, like my parents’ place. Very little as looking out through the Springtime woods & seeing their spark of color.

  3. Azaleas have their place and can be graceful in the right, woodsy setting. But the above ‘garden’ isn’t one, as you imply. It’s Landscaping, and like a suburban virus. Awful, and catching.

    I love the native azaleas, too, for their more open form and interesting colours.

    The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (which I love) has rows of red azaleas in bloom right now. I despise them, but there must have been a reason for it. I just don’t get that one, personally

  4. Really? You put up a picture of a “garden” near you as a pointed example of awful? I may be mistaken, but that looks like somebody’s home, not a commercial area. Hopefully NOT a Garden Rant reader.
    Okay, so it’s not my style of pruning either, but it sure looks like somebody’s paying attention, and somebody loves that funky set of shrubs. What happened to the ethic of “do what you like” and “your garden doesn’t have to please anybody but you”?

  5. It’s ironic that one persons pleasure is another persons pain. Here in Montreal, spring only comes once every three years; usually we go from winter into summer and have no experience with spring flowering plants. How I wish Azaleas would inundate our city as they do in D.C. We would never complain. I suppose, in D.C., one suffers from having too much of a good thing.

  6. I remember being amazed at the glory of the native azaleas in full bloom in southern Oregon. It was a fantastic hillside of peach and salmon. I’ve never seen anything like it again but I sure wish I would.

  7. Azaleas just finished down here and I have a new found dislike for them. The colors are just too gaudy. Even the white is too white. I can’t figure out how you would pair them with anything, even in a mixed border.

    I know they can do better. A friend has a beautiful azalea that is deep burgundy. She bought it because the nursery was getting rid of them–no one wanted them. I guess people down here only want over the top pink pink pink.

    BTW–on the main screen right now, there is an ad for TruGreen Chemlawn right underneath LawnReform.org. Nice juxtaposition.

  8. While I agree that they can be heinously ugly and people aren’t taught how to care for them I don’t agree that my taste is somehow any more valid than my neighbours so if they want to get wild with the azaleas they have my blessing. I can’t believe how many gardeners are outraged by “lawn nazis” but are just as intolerant of other people’s plantings.

  9. Well, the point of this article isn’t really whether the neighbors have taste or not, but whether the azaleas (and rhododendrons) are worthy of the popularity they enjoy. They are not. I have to say that a plant that is lovely for 2 weeks, and gawd awful for 50 weeks is a terrible waste of space. There are many lovely shrubs that can carry their weight in all seasons.

  10. Adrian Higgins is hitting them out of the park lately.

    Azaleas are understory shrubs. They look obnoxious anywhere but under the shade of deciduous trees.

    The ultimate Jersey shrub, which, as a Jersey escapee, I naturally cannot bear. First thing I did upon buying this place was take a bowsaw to two horrible hot pink ones.

  11. Azaleas have their place, just like all plants including weeds. Except crabgrass of course, there is no room on earth for that. Right plant right place. The deciduous azaleas are the most elegant shrubs available to home gardeners, even if they only bloom for a couple of weeks, but what blooms longer than that anyway? Very few things have a longer bloom period, there needs to be other interest such as fine fall foliage color. The natives and their hybrids have just that. Have I made the point yet? 🙂

  12. Although I can appreciate some “meatball” shrubs in the right place (like a formal Italian garden), an azalea isn’t the right choice for that look. Yup, understory plant, which in this case it is not. Like already mentioned right plant right place.

  13. I don’t think the photo supports the rant. In my neck of the woods every one of those bushes would be in peak bloom – not a green leaf in sight. The pruning is kinda intense, kinda scary, makes me worry about any pets that live there.

    I like azaleas and rhodies but would never fill my yard with them. I love the natives even though some of them are the same level of heat in color (who knew mother nature could be sooooo gaudy). I also find them lovely when not in bloom. When so few bushes will live in deep shade, who am I to complain if they only bloom for two weeks – they require such little care, I can just avert my eyes in the spring.

    I find it odd that rant readers would jump on the neighbors-garden-trashing bandwagon and use as their primary complaint that this group of plants only blooms for a short period of time when that is the problem with MOST perennials.

  14. I grew up surrounded by giant azaleas in the deep south. I spent hours as a kid, playing inside of their hidden world. As an adult I loved that two weeks of magic when they bloomed, perfectly timed with dogwoods and the emergence of fresh new leaves on live oaks. The whole world became a fairy land. Brief, but oh so spectacular. I don’t see anything wrong with that. When I began gardening, the azaleas and camellias were the backdrop for everything else my husband and I were planting….mostly veggies, but perennials as well. I do understand your rant about the inappropriate pruning tho. Most folks let their azaleas grow naturally into huge, billowing clouds of color. I never saw them as gaudy at all.

  15. I prefer camellias over azaleas, but even here in So Cal, the judicious use of azaleas can be gorgeous & many have spot bloom thru out the year. If you visit here in the winter/spring, you must go to Nuccio’s Nursery in Altadena who have developed many lovely hybrids of azaleas & camellias.

  16. When I was young I went to Virginia for a few weeks in spring. I was excited to be visiting a place where rain actually falls from the sky on a regular basis. I imagined the incredible variety of plants that must be in every yard. I thought there would be perennial borders everywhere. Instead there were vast lawns with token tulips, tortured tree wisteria backed by azaleas clashing with the brick of the homes. Was this the result of a lack of imagination or the desire to conform the neighbors standards?

  17. One of the neat things about Azaleas is that they only dazzle for a few weeks. They help kick us out of winter doldrums, much like a vast planting of spring bulbs.
    And far from being offensive the rest of the year, their serene green backdrop is the perfect foil for annuals, perennials and other flowering plants.

    I wish they weren’t planted at the foundation like parsley around a turkey, and that they weren’t pruned into meatballs as in the picture, but give a plant a break!

  18. Azaleas are not so much an epidemic here in Michigan. As a Niwaki fan, I’m actually intrigued by the unnatural pruning – are there really any “rules” in gardening when it comes to subjective taste? For me, it would be “no tulips” – shortlived as the azalea in terms of bloom – they are borderline offensive to my eye.
    I appreciated the comment that some type of gardening effort is better than none at all. I’m a judger, and remind myself of that when i’m dissing the neighbors’ petunias…and tulips. And yet, I’ve planted them both, taking it as a challenge to “make it work”.
    There must be a visual solution to using non-understory azalea balls…contest, anyone?

  19. Today I drove by a house where they had allowed their ancient azaleas to co-mingle into harsh swirls of whites with hot pinks and purple reds and just about every other color these bushes come in. To drive home the tacky they had sheared the entire mass into a sloping flat top facing the road. It was like looking at a childs neon finger painting project on the refrigerator door. The only word that came to mind was “Fuggly”.

  20. Well, everyone’s tastes are different. I just got a call today from the owner of a woodland garden I designed, who had called to tell me how much she LOVED her Azaleas.

    I think they’re lovely in the right setting, usually woodland, and I must say if it pulled this nice lady into the outdoors to notice her garden, then it’s a success in my book.

    I’ll also chime in to say that the picture of the hedges is pretty inoffensive to me. It’s not cutting-edge design or anything, but it’s neat and looks like someone loves it, which is good enough for me. I only wish my neighbors paid as much attention to their gardens!

  21. Maybe I’m just numb from years in suburbia, but I way prefer the photo you posted to the sight of lines of forsythia sheared into boxes. Unless you happen to live in a pineapple under the sea, that’s a bizarre look.

  22. A friend of mine said that all the pink, fuchsia, purple, magenta, and red azaleas ablaze around town reminded her of being on an acid trip. It made me laugh.

  23. Couldn’t agree more! Augusta National is nothing but a hideous eyesore this time of year. And the chemicals they must use.

  24. Summerville, SC is definitely the heart of azalea land and if you live here it’s your civic duty to plant some. But yes, please incorporate them into a woodland setting and please don’t shear them? That being said, I agree that if all my neighbors gave their yards such meticulous care, I would be over the moon!

  25. The Glenn Dale azaleas at the US National Arboretum are looking especially fabulous this week and yes, as another poster noted the Landon Azalea Fest is coming up this weekend and is a wonderful woodland garden display. Then there are the azaleas ringing the “Gorge” at the Franciscan Monastery and the pond-path at Brookside Gardens. The crowds and bridal-photo-op jostling at these sites rival the Cherry Blossom Fest hysteria. If you live in DC-area or visting, be sure to make time to see some or all of them.

  26. Hey Susan,

    Apart from Tulips, Azaleas is also one of my favorite plants.

    when comes to planting Azaleas, it’s critical to give them some extra water while they are growing new roots. It’s also best to keep the soil evenly moist and not to let the soil completely dry out. Too much water might be another explanation of sudden azalea death.

    Beautiful plants need to handle with good care 🙂

    Jay Chua
    Publisher, PorchSwingSets.com

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